States Aim to Attract Ecotourists

Ecotourism's popularity is exploding, with 20 percent to 30 percent growth per year, according to several estimates -- much faster than regular tourism. True ecotourism not only protects the environment, but also benefits the local culture and economy.

When customers arrive at Natural Seasons Bed and Breakfast, they're often just looking for a convenient place to stay in Weston. Period.

They might not be expecting the organic garden. Or the $5 discount for arriving in a carpool or a fuel-efficient car. They might not notice that the fluffy guest towels, when they aren't so fluffy anymore, get reused as cleaning rags -- and when the towels' natural fibers break down enough, they join the compost pile.

Natural Seasons is part of West Virginia's growing ecotourism industry.

"There are shades of 'green' in the tourism industry," said John Williams, owner of Natural Seasons and president of the state ecotourism association. "I focus on the darkest green I can achieve."

Ecotourism's popularity is exploding, with 20 percent to 30 percent growth per year, according to several estimates -- much faster than regular tourism. True ecotourism not only protects the environment, but also benefits the local culture and economy.


More and more tourists are demanding such an experience. Almost three-fourths of the United States' most well-heeled, frequent travelers -- more than 55 million Americans -- favor such responsible tourism, according to a 2003 survey by National Geographic Traveler and the Travel Industry Association of America. Their group clout translates into roughly half of all travel spending.

But those travelers have a hard time finding what they're looking for. Ecotourism is well developed in exotic locales such as Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands. But it is still in its infancy in the United States. Until very recently, travelers who wanted socially and environmentally responsible nature vacations had to do a lot of blind digging to unearth the small, scattered U.S. outfitters and lodgings that fit the bill.

Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, Oregon, Hawaii and other states are working on a more customer-friendly approach, as is West Virginia.

This year, West Virginia's ecotourism association has hired an "ecotours coordinator," who fields calls from interested tourists and helps them assemble a custom vacation.

Now, ecotourism outfitters in nearby cities such as Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., who traditionally have sent customers on ecotours in foreign countries, are beginning to steer clients toward West Virginia instead.

"A large majority of our market -- D.C. metro-area folks -- are looking for this kind of tourism," said Ben Isenberg, vice president and chief operating officer of Solimar Marketing. Historically, the D.C.-based company has specialized in responsible ecotours to Costa Rica.

Often, though, the client's budget "is for a weekend getaway," Isenberg said. "They don't really have the funds to do a one-time, once-a-year trip to Costa Rica.

"We've definitely decided West Virginia is a perfect opportunity."

At first glance, it seems as if most West Virginia tourism would be ecotourism. Whitewater rafting, in and of itself, doesn't hurt the environment. Neither does hiking, biking, rock climbing ...

But today's ecotourists want to know more. For example, will the picnic soda cans discarded by a rafting group be recycled?

And then there's the human dimension: Is a hotel owned and staffed by local people, or will the money spent there wind up in a faraway corporate headquarters?

Before 2001, there was no central ecotourism group in West Virginia to answer such questions and attract those tourists. John Williams of Natural Seasons joined with others who already were practicing ecotourism in the Mountain State to form the ecotourism association.

"We follow what are called the 'Eight Principles of Ecotourism,'" Williams said. "We have [members] survey their facilities: What are you doing to conserve energy, water, flora and fauna around your facility?"

The "Eight Principles" are fairly strict, agreed upon by The International Ecotourism Society and others. Environmental friendliness is just one part; the principles also demand that a tourism business benefit the local society, while helping tourists understand and appreciate that society.

Big hotel corporations have adopted some eco-friendly ideas, attracting customers and saving money. The Boston Park Plaza famously raked in more than $1 million in new bookings shortly after it announced in the early 1990s that it had installed energy-efficient windows, dimmers on the chandeliers, low-flow showerheads, and wall dispensers for luxury shampoos.

Ecotourism groups applaud such environmental efforts, but caution that the local community must be kept in mind.

A "Green Living" book published this summer by "E, the Environmental Magazine" puts it this way: "A beachfront hotel tower built of imported materials with absentee owners and no local employees is not an eco-resort, even if it does offer its guests the option of not washing their towels."

There exists no "seal of approval" to tell a traveler for sure if a company truly practices good ecotourism. So tourists often rely on companies such as Solimar to book them environmentally and socially responsible vacations.

Isenberg, of Solimar, believes West Virginia has what it takes to attract ecotourists.

"A lot of the same people coming to our office, looking for an international escape, would love the opportunity to do some ecotourism close by," he said. The state offers many of the same ecotourism activities as Costa Rica: "Whitewater rafting, birding, camping, ecolodges," Isenberg said. "And the culture and history is pretty rich in both places."

Popular belief, and early research, held that ecotourists wanted to explore tropical, foreign countries. But a more recent Canadian government study found that two-thirds of recent U.S. and Canadian travelers interested in ecotourism would prefer to stay in North America for their next trip.

West Virginia has the nature activities down pat. All of the top 10 nature activities preferred by U.S. tourists, as identified by a 1998 tourism industry survey, are available in West Virginia: visiting parks, hiking, exploring preserved areas, viewing wildlife, walking nature trails in ecosystems, visiting unique natural places such as sinkholes, environmental education, bird watching, biking and freshwater fishing.

Organizations like Williams' want to make sure ecotourists are satisfied with the other aspects of their stay. An Eastern Panhandle group, the Ecology Coalition of Morgan County, includes ecotourism lodging operators and others who set up packages such as this spring's "Redbud Weekend" and "Birdwatchers' Weekend," making it easy for tourists.

Nature tourists have a reputation for not spending much money. But several studies indicate that ecotourists actually spend more than regular tourists.

"There are a couple of stereotypes that go around with ecotourism," Carol Patterson, author of "The Business of Ecotourism," told West Virginia tourism operators at a conference in Flatwoods.

"I think it's one of those things that accounts for the slow start of ecotourism. A lot of people have this idea that ecotourists are kind of granola-ey, tree-hugging, wool sock-wearing, cheap tourists ... That's not the case. We've actually found that they spend quite a bit of money."

Ecotourists, experts say, are willing to pay people to provide them with nature experiences -- whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, observing rare wild animals -- that they don't have the equipment or expertise to experience on their own.

Besides those experiences, West Virginia offers something that is very simple, but hard to find in the populous Eastern United States, Patterson said.


"We often overlook those sorts of features when we're putting together our ecotourism ...You can offer that solitude, that return to nature that these other people can't."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News